Top Tenor

On Oct. 24 and 26, when Gran Wilson performs the title role in Jules Massenet’s “Werther” with the Mobile Opera, he will share the role he has performed in four countries on two continents. And, he will sing the heartbreakingly beautiful story to close his stage career in one of the places it began in 1982.

A native of Bessemer — a fact he proudly proclaims in cast biographies in opera programs around the globe — Wilson is a more typical Alabamian than you might expect from a renowned opera singer. He was a starting halfback on his high school football team, and just like the other guys, he dreamed of playing for the Crimson Tide under coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. “But, I wasn’t big enough or fast enough, ” he says. And, unlike his dad, he wasn’t cut out for medical school. He had a great dissection technique but realized early on that “if I ever lost a patient, I’d be done for.” 

Wilson, 60, has been singing just about forever, even as a tyke. He well remembers a church fashion show when he was 3 and wore a cowboy outfit accessorized with a fake guitar. Each child was to be introduced and then walk straight across the stage. But when Wilson reached the spotlight, he took the mike from the emcee, strummed his fake guitar and burst out with “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” The crowd applauded, so he followed up with “Day O.” When he started in on a third number, the young performer was promptly hustled away.

Fifteen years later, having ruled out football and medicine as careers, Wilson headed to Samford University with vague plans to study music. He’d appeared in musicals in high school and enjoyed them immensely, so he did the paperwork to get his degree in music education.

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His voice teacher, Russell Hedger, played the first opera recordings Wilson had ever heard. Mesmerized, the student announced that he was changing his major from music education to voice. School officials were in a tizzy. “We’ve never had anyone get a straight voice degree, ” one said, and another, “It’s not worth the piece of paper it’s written on.”

“You’ll need graduate school, ” they counseled, and warned the boy from Bessemer that a voice career would require a move to New York. They even asked him to get permission from his parents. Wilson’s parents didn’t stand in the way, but they were frank. “You’d better be good, ” his dad said.

Opening Acts

Next came grad school at Indiana University and then New York. But without the apprenticeship programs that are common today, Wilson simply lived on the cheap and went for auditions when he could — all without success.

He finally landed a gig on Long Island. The director was impressed and told him that the Texas Opera Theatre was looking for a tenor for its touring cast of “Rigoletto.” The director asked him if he could sing anything from “Rigoletto” and — well trained — he did, winning the role as a Duke of Mantua.

Then, luck played a crucial role, just as Wilson’s mentors had to that point.Charles Kuralt’s “On the Road” TV series planned to feature a company of young singers performing grand opera in Eagle Pass, Texas. When the 10-minute segment aired, the credits rolled with Wilson’s performance of “La donna è mobile, ” the duke’s beloved aria.

“I got an agent from that, ” says Wilson. And auditions. “One of the first was Mobile Opera.” Benton Hess, then artistic director, offered him the role of Nemerino in “The Elixir of Love.”

Wilson spent about 10 years in the regional opera system, performing in “all the Donizetti and Mozart comedies.” He was invited periodically to try out in what he terms “junk auditions” for New York City Opera. By the sixth audition, he told his agent that if artistic director Beverly Sills wasn’t there, he would not sing. But she was and he sang “Ah mes amis” from Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment” — an aria that offers a tenor the chance to demonstrate his high C nine times, to either fail or prove himself. “It’s nice to see somebody who’s not afraid of that aria, ” Sills told him. She asked to hear another, offering him a break for water. He declined the water and resumed singing, with Ramiro’s aria from Rossini’s “Cinderella.” Sills was impressed and Wilson opened in “The Barber of Seville” with City Opera. “That opened the door to Europe.” 

Hitting the High Notes of Europe

Back in graduate school at Indiana, Wilson’s voice teacher, Jean Deis, offered valuable insight: “You’re not a big man and yours is not a big voice. Make your start in comedies. But, in about 10 years, you’ll want to sing in French operas. That’s where your voice is going to go.”

“He was right almost to the day, ” Wilson says.

New Orleans Opera hired him to sing “Werther, ” which was followed by a production at Glimmerglass in New York, and then to Europe where he did what few Americans do — sang French opera for the French.

“Any time you get paid to sing, there are no bad parts, ” Wilson quips. But early on he was frustrated that he seemed suited only to the high roles in comedies. “My temperament wanted to sing drama, but my voice wasn’t big enough yet.”

Gounod’s Romeo “was the first role that really spoke to me, ” he says, and he had great fun with the sword fighting.

But before long, he came to love the role of Werther. A psychological drama, Goethe’s book had caused a sensation in Europe. “As an opera, it’s just great material. You don’t get the girl, it doesn’t turn out great. He’s a tragic figure. But when I sang it, I felt like I knew that boy. And people could see that.”

Consequently, the role he first sang in New Orleans led him to France, to Belgium and even to Norway.

Repeating a role is a wonderful thing for an opera singer, he says. “The first time you perform a role, you’re just trying not to bleed to death. You can sing in the studio and practice room, but until that orchestra cranks up, you don’t know how it’s going to go. And because orchestra time is so valuable, you don’t get to practice much with them.” So the second time, “you can think about telling the story even better.”

Some things have become easier during the course of his career. 

As a young singer, he did Rossini’s “Cinderella” five times, “Barber of Seville” five times and Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” three — each in English, but each a different translation from the original language.

Since the advent of surtitling — translations projected above or below the stage — most operas are sung in the language in which they were written.

“It’s heaven to sing in the right language, ” he says. “It’s infinitely easier because the notes are construed to fit the sound of the words.”

A Grand Finale

Now he’s approaching the end of his stage career. There’ll still be concerts and recitals — and the teaching that he loves at the University of Maryland — but the three-week commitment for a staged opera is too long to be away from other responsibilities now, he says.

And so comes the swan song in Mobile.

“I didn’t want to just fade away, ” Wilson says. When Mobile Opera’s general director Scott Wright — they’ve been friends since Samford — proposed that he perform “Werther, ” Wilson accepted at once. “I am fiercely loyal to Alabama and grateful to that particular company for having given me a wonderful start. This performance will be a great way to tie a bow under this thing and call it a day.”

October 24 and 26: Mobile Opera presents “Werther”

Mobile Civic Center Theater • 401 Civic Center Dr. 432-6772 

Jules Massenet’s beautiful music draws us into Goethe’s story.

text by Nedra Bloom

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